The Blood Eagle
The blood eagle was a ritual execution described in Scandinavian skaldic poetry and the sagas as a ritual form of vengeance. Only two accounts exist: The Orkneyinga Saga and Snorri Sturlson’s Heimskringla. Both were written at least two centuries after the events they describe, leading scholars to debate their validity as proof that the blood eagle had a basis in fact.
The first death by Blood Eagle was that of Prince Halfdan Haaleg. Halfdan had killed the father of Einar- and so Einar had his revenge. The two accounts contradict themselves slightly as in one, Einar orders the execution while in the other, he carried it out himself. However, both describe what the blood eagle involved. The victim knelt with his back to the executioner, who severed his ribs from his spine. The executioner then pulled out the lungs through the gap to form ‘wings.’
This death was also described as being inflicted on King Aella of Northumbria by Ivar the boneless. Aella was responsible for the death of Ivar’s father, the semi-historical Ragnar Lothbrok. Ivar and his brothers stormed England in revenge and in, 867AD took the city of York and captured Aella. They then “caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Aella and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine and then ripped out his lungs.”
However, the fact that Ragnar Lothbrok and his death are semi-mythological, coupled with the lack of evidence has led some scholars to believe that these accounts are suspect. Rather than being factual accounts, some view them as beefed up stories designed to entertain rather than inform, colored with inspiration from the tales of Christian martyrdom the Norsemen were now exposed to.
However, Alfred Smyth, former professor of medieval history at the University of Kent in the UK believed in the Blood Eagle as an actual mode of execution. He stated that the term for Blood eagle, ‘blodorn” was an Old Norse word that predates Christianity. Smyth’s belief could also be backed by material evidence. The Stora Hammars Stones in Gotland, Sweden date back to the Viking age. One of them, Stora Hammer I seems to depict a man about to be opened up from the back while an eagle hovers behind him. Does this depict the blood eagle or is it another allegory? The debate whether this particular torturous death was fact or fable will no doubt continue.